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The H Word


The H Word: Don’t Look Now

I get so stressed watching horror—especially in theaters, especially in the dark, where I have nowhere to hide—that I hold a bag of popcorn over my eyes, sweat pooling in my palms, while my friends teasingly jab me in the ribs. It’s not the idea of a ghost jumping off the top of a dresser that gets me. It’s the anticipation. It’s the tightrope between knowing and not-knowing: knowing that your safety will be breached, but not knowing when. “But don’t you write horror?” Yes; it’s called a coping mechanism.


The H Word: The Charm of the Old-Fashioned Ghost Story

After the real estate agent took my husband and myself on the grand tour of the 1870’s Italianate Revival house, I asked the owner, before inquiring about taxes, or pipes, or the age of the roof was: Is it haunted? The owner, a classic silver-haired little old lady type, familiar to anyone who has read a ghost story or two, said “Yes. Ruby’s still here.” Of course, we bought the house. Neither my husband nor I are particularly “sensitive,” so if our house was haunted, at first, we remained blissfully unaware, ascribing any bumps in the night to mice


The H Word: Body Horror—What’s Really Under Your Skin?

Years ago, while studying Buddhism in college, I came across the Tibetan practice of sky burial, where the corpse is chopped into pieces and left out in the open for the vultures. Monks gather around the remains to meditate upon death, aided by the grisly reality of a human body reduced to it essential components. I found this fascinating. Still do. Bravo to those stalwart monks watching the vultures dip their red beaks into the human goulash. Whether it’s a spectacle I’d want to witness myself, though, is another matter.


The H Word: Dementia and the Writer

My eighty-five-year-old mother, who has been living in a board and care facility since August 2017, recently told me a remarkable anecdote: when I was eleven, there was a big story in the news about a missing thirteen-year-old girl. One day, Mom and Dad spotted the missing child on the street and brought her home, where she stayed with us for a few days until the authorities arranged to get her back to her family. What gave this story its real punch ending was my mother’s discovery that another one of the residents at the board and care was that little girl, all these years later.


The H Word: The Things that Walk Behind the Rows

Two years ago I moved to a rural town of 8,000 people, twenty miles from the border between Kansas and Missouri. It’s the kind of place most people only pass by on the way to someplace else. Unless you live here, the most you’ll ever see of it is the truck stop by the freeway, where you might stop to fill up your gas tank and take a leak. It’s the last outpost of civilization you’ll see for a while. Twenty minutes or so outside of town, there’s a long stretch of highway where cell phones don’t work. We drive it often, and I still haven’t quite accepted the concept of this dead zone.


The H Word: Reviewing Horror

To me, horror is about fear. It’s about feeling. Which I think is why a lot of readers and reviewers shy away from looking at stories that are labeled as horror. Because fear is intense, and intensely personal, so what one person finds frightening another person will likely find . . . boring. And if a reviewer decides to judge horror stories solely on how well the stories scare them personally, they’ll likely find a lot of horror to be unsuccessful. But to me there’s so much more to horror than just the ability to make us afraid.


The H Word: Supernatural Horror in a Secular World

Last summer at NecronomiCon Providence, I moderated a panel called “Faithful Frighteners,” in which we discussed whether or not it’s harder for an atheist to be frightened by a story in which the horror depends on the trappings of a religious worldview. Faith is by definition the suspension of disbelief, so it struck me as related when at the same convention, renowned anthologist Ellen Datlow commented that she finds supernatural horror more effective in short stories than in novels because it’s harder to sustain that suspension of disbelief for an entire novel.


The H Word: W Is for Witch

Growing up, I never remember fearing witches. Instead, I feared the men who burned them. As a strange, bullied child who always took magic for granted, I tacitly assumed if witch-hunts ever started again, I wouldn’t be safe. Somebody would quickly recognize me as “wrong” and tie me to the nearest pyre. Witch hunts were the stuff real nightmares were made of. Men would yank you from your bed in the night and lock you up in a dark cell. Your chance of a fair trial was non-existent. And they did this ostensibly for the good of your neighbors and your family.


The H Word: Someone Changed the Bones in Our Homes

I may be agnostic now, but I was raised in the Catholic Church. A childhood that was haunted by the smell of burnt candle wax and images of torture as objects of reverie. It was here that I was told about the most terrifying thing my young child mind would ever experience: what the church called transubstantiation. This idea that something can appear the same and be changed on the spiritual level. That this piece of wafer was actually parts of a corpse. That this glass of wine was really blood. An idea that terrified me to the bone.


The H Word: Food for Thought

I haven’t eaten meat since I was eleven. I was the only vegetarian in my school, in a little farming town where the largest employer was the local slaughterhouse. It wasn’t an easy decision to swim against that overwhelming social current, but it’s one from which I have never since retreated. Looking back, I see a willful child stretching for individuality and control over her life, but I think that even then I understood what I do now: that on a fundamental level, what we choose to eat defines us.